Sign of the times: State protected by sovereign immunity

Kathleen Lucas point to where a base of a road sign damaged a lawn mower near Smyrna. (Submitted photo)

SMYRNA — Kathleen Lucas found out the hard way that the state is immune to some insurance claims.

That unfortunate knowledge stems from a recent accident that left her with a bill for lawnmower repairs that totaled nearly $800.

For the past five or six years, a friend’s son has cut the grass at Ms. Lucas’ Smyrna property. According to Ms. Lucas, he was hard at work one summer day when the lawnmower hit something — the remains of the base of a road sign.

While the sign on Vandyke Greenspring Road had been removed by the Delaware Department of Transportation, a piece had apparently been left behind. The small metal base remained stuck in the ground, obscured by the grass, Ms. Lucas said.

A lawnmower was damaged when a sign base was left in the grass by DelDOT workers. Submitted photo)

She was unsure how long it had been since the sign was removed when the mower hit the metal base on July 27.

After she called DelDOT, the agency sent people out to excavate the remaining bit.

In the meantime, Ms. Lucas said she sought to file an insurance claim for the lawnmower, but, despite DelDOT admitting the sign belonged to the department, her attempt to have the state cover the damages was denied.

A letter from the Department of Human Resources spells out the rationale. The Delaware Constitution gives the state sovereign immunity, it says, with that immunity being lifted only in select circumstances approved by the General Assembly.

“In the case of liability claims, the waiver of sovereign immunity only applies to circumstances where the State has obtained insurance to cover the risk,” reads the letter. “Since the State has obtained no such insurance for this matter, any damage or injury claims therefore would be barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Therefore, we are unable to make any restitution to you for your damages.”

According to a bill for lawnmower repairs, the vehicle suffered damage to the blades and the spindle connecting the center blade. The cost came to $779.

Ms. Lucas said she was told she should use her homeowners insurance, but there’s one problem: the $1,000 deductible.

The episode has left her extremely frustrated — and out $779.

“To me, it’s negligence. They didn’t take the base of the sign out,” she said.

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a question about general state liability.

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